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Yankees Go West in 1951
Greetings from Catalina Island
The '47 Dodgers in Havana
History of the Cactus League
Spring Training Standings, 1984-2006
Grapefruit League Attendance, 1996-2006
Spring Training Attendance, 1975-2005

The '47 Dodgers on Havana:
Baseball at a Crossroads

In the spring of 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers traveled by train and plane to Cuba for spring training. It was to be 47 days in cosmopolitan Havana preparing for the upcoming season. But in retrospect, forces in baseball were converging there, forces that would shape the sport for years to come. Jackie Robinson was about to break the color barrier that year, opening up baseball and spelling the end of the Negro Leagues. Likewise the Cuban League, which had flourished since the 19th century, began to unravel just after reaching its zenith. Organized baseball faced a profound threat to its inviolate reserve clause and prevailed, presaging the labor disputes of recent decades. And the Dodgers were building a dynasty that would be among the most beloved in baseball history.

February 25, 1947 was a bright blustery day in Havana, with a few high clouds remaining from the previous day's rains. The Brooklyn Dodgers squad had arrived a few days earlier to much fanfare to begin spring training. But Cuban baseball fans hardly noticed the Dodgers. That afternoon the Cuban League's winter season would wind up its most dramatic pennant race ever with a clash of eternal rivals, the Havana Reds (or Lions) and the Almendares Blues (or Scorpions). These teams and the League dated back to the 1870s and their rivalry moved thousands of fans to passion. It defined and divided families, endangered friendships and was the financial mainstay of Cuban professional baseball. The Reds represented the capital and Almendares a suburb of Havana, but no one was particularly influenced by those designations. One was habanista or almendarista by virtue of some hard-to-analyze chemistry probably connected to family history, particularly to what one's father's favorite team had been.

My habanista father was one of the nearly 40,000 fans who crowded into Gran Estadio de La Habana-capacity 35,000-to witness the deciding game. Gran Stadium, a spacious pitchers' park with prevailing winds blowing in and boasting a playing surface and lighting system of major-league quality, was built in 1946 as the top baseball park in Latin America. Hundreds climbed fences, hung from light towers, pressed against ropes on the field, while thousands others milled around outside the park, unable to enter. After dominating throughout the season, Havana had been caught at the end thanks to Almendares' superb duo of lefties: Max Lanier, fresh from his first season in Mexican baseball after "jumping" from the St. Louis Cardinals, and Agapito Mayor, one of the greatest Cuban pitchers of all time, affectionately called Triple Feo, or Thrice Ugly. On February 25, Lanier would take the mound on one day's rest after Mayor had handcuffed Havana the day before for the tie. The whole of Cuba came to a halt to listen to the broadcast, oblivious to the visiting Dodgers.

The Brooklyn bunch had blown into town surrounded by the hype of Jackie Robinson's possible move from the minor-league Montreal Royals' roster to the varsity. Although Robinson had led the International League in hitting in '46 with a .349 average and stolen 40 bases, it was still far from clear whether the Dodgers-or organized baseball-would allow him the opportunity to play in the big leagues. Perhaps even more media attention spotlighted manager Leo Durocher's marriage to Hollywood starlet Laraine Day after a scandalous affair that titillated the tabloids. Cuban fans knew Leo and the Dodgers well from previous visits and they cheered Robinson's efforts; still, cuban fans were too focused on the Havana-Almendares match to care much about the Dodgers.

In Cuba, blacks had been playing in the professional winter league since the 1900 season. Breaking the color barrier then had provoked no small amount of controversy, but that had been nearly 50 years ago. Since then both Cuban and American blacks had played and even managed in Cuba with no further trouble. Robinson was no novelty for Cuban fans who had seen many Negro League stars perform, including Oscar Charleston, CoolPapa Bell, Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige and many others. In fact, that spring both black and white Cuban all-stars competed against the Dodgers, most notably a third baseman for the New York Cubans, Orestes "Minnie" Miñoso, soon to make a name for himself with the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox. The more lenient racial attitude in Cuba had been one of the reasons the Dodgers returned to Havana for spring training in 1947. They had trained at Havana's La Tropical Stadium in '41 and '42, abandoning Cuba only because of wartime travel restrictions. In 1946, Robinson's presence in Florida had led to some ugly confrontations, and he was only on the Montreal Royals roster. Having come close to winning in '46-losing the pennant in a best-of-three playoff against the Cardinals-and intent on taking the historic step of promoting Robinson to the parent club, the Dodgers wanted no disruptions nor distractions. Havana was known territory, was passionate in its love of baseball, had a history of dealing with American black players, and had a new stadium. Just as important, the Dodgers planned to travel throughout the Caribbean and to Venezuela and Florida and Havana had become an aviation center for the U.S. military during the war and in the postwar period a hub for Pan American and Cubana de Aviación airlines. That spring Havana was at the crossroads of baseball history, and not only because Robinson was breaking the major leagues' color barrier.

Havana after the war was no sleepy provincial city like Tampa of the '40s, the budding tourist town of Miami, or the Florida villages used as spring-training sites; rather, Havana, founded early in the 16th century, was a full-fledged, cosmopolitan seaport and capital. Its old-world charm and sophistication had lured many over the years, among them many Americans, like the poet Wallace Stevens and the novelist Ernest Hemingway. In the '20s, Havana had been the winter refuge of a smart set from New York and elsewhere who came by yacht to gamble, play golf, dance and drink (back home there was Prohibition). The city was the Monte Carlo of the Caribbean. In the late '40s, Cuba was enjoying an economic bonanza due to the sugar market having peaked, as usual, during the war, and then the Marshall Plan buying up the island's production. Construction of Gran Stadium, a state-of-the-art facility, was not an isolated instance of development. Public transportation was modernizing and a building boom that culminated in the '50s was beginning. Tourism would peak, again, this time with ordinary Americans to whom Havana was billed as the Las Vegas of the Caribbean.

The Dodgers arrived in February of 1947 to a Cuba offering political stability as well as good weather. President Fulgencio Batista, who had dominated Cuban politics in the '30s and had been democratically elected in 1940, had peacably relinquished power in 1944. The Brooklyn organization also expected to benefit from Havana's excellent facilities, easy accessibility to the mainland by plane or ferry (hence American tourists), available opposition for exhibition games, and fans with the interest and money to make the whole venture a financial success.

White Dodgers were lodged at the superb Hotel Nacional. I have often wondered what they thought and felt in the midst of the impressive accommodations of that grand hotel. This was a team full of tough war veterans and immigrants' sons from impoverished parts of the U.S. who had not grown up experiencing such luxury and sophistication. The Nacional, in an Andalusian-Moorish style, stands imposingly facing the Gulf Stream. Its elegant bars, sumptuous swimming pool and other amenities had made it the social center of Havana's English-speaking community. This was not yet the gambling, carousing, mob-connected bunch that descended on the city in the '50s and built hotels and casinos under the patronage of Batista, Cuba's dictator from 1952-59. The Hotel Nacional's Americans, English and Canadians were diplomats, businessmen and correspondents with their wives and children. Gambling was still confined to the Casino Nacional and the nightclubs. Trampling through tea and cocktail parties in their uniforms (they dressed at the hotel) were the likes of Gene Hermanski, Cookie Lavagetto, Carl Furillo, Pee Wee Reese, Arky Vaughan, Bruce Edwards, Eddie Stanky, Hugh Casey, Gil Hodges and Dixie Walker. This was a rough gang. The Nacional had not been so mistreated since 1933, when elite Cuban army officers took refuge in it only to be flushed out in a siege lasting several days by rebellious enlisted men led by none other than a young sergeant named Batista.

Just as the social set at the Nacional was probably aloof and unaware of Cuban political life, it is more than likely that most Dodgers did not know or care much about the confrontation between Almendares and Havana at Gran Stadium. Not so in the case of Branch Rickey and the rest of the Dodger brass. The Dodgers had not gone to the Caribbean just to train and protect Robinson, but as part of an effort by organized baseball to fend off the threat of the Mexican League, controlled by the millionaire Pasquel brothers, Jorge and Bernardo, who, with their major-league ambitions, began in 1946 to recruit talent with the lure of top-dollar contracts. In all, 18 major leaguers defected and Lanier was not the only "jumper" playing that winter in Havana. Sal Maglie and Danny Gardella, teammates who had left the N.Y. Giants to play in the Mexican League, were there too. In fact, the four teams in the Cuban League were stocked with American and white Cuban players as well as other Latins who had signed with the Pasquels. Not all were major leaguers like Lanier, Maglie or Fred Martin, but players like Mayor and Lou Klein, who were or had been minor-leauguers. By offering unheard-of-salaries and multi-year contracts, the Pasquels put baseball's reserve clause in jeopardy. To Commissioner A.B. "Happy" Chandler and the owners, this posed an attack on the whole industry, not to mention an affront to U.S. pride, which was running pretty high after the war. The perception of danger was heightened since this threat was not an isolated instance. On June 3, 1946, an hour before a game against the Giants, Pittsburgh Pirates players had voted to strike. They sought recognition of an American Baseball Guild. While the walkout was averted at the last moment, in July a special meeting of clubs agreed on a minimum salary and other demands.

The men in charge of baseball moved quickly to protect their interests. In April of '46, the commissioner banned for five years all players who went to Mexico. Though the ban would be overturned in 1949 as the result of a civil suit, it worked to stem the tide of defections. Still, organized baseball sought to end the Mexican threat altogether. So it was that in the spring of '47, Rickey was in Cuba personally reminding Latin players that they, like the Americans who had jumped, would not be welcome in the majors if they participated in the Mexican League. In addition, officials of the Yankees and other big-league clubs used their presence in Cuba, Panama, Puerto Rico and Venezuela that spring to convey a similar message. After the 1947 spring training, Chandler, a decidedly unpopular figure in Cuba, pressured the owners of the Cuban League to come to a working agreement with organized baseball, turning the proud Cuban circuit technically into a minor league, albeit a very good one. The most rankling part of this pact was that American and Cuban players who had gone to Mexico would be banned from competing in Havana. This would mean that some of Cuba's most cherished stars, like Mayor, Roberto Ortiz, Tomás de la Cruz, Napoleán Reyes, and many others would not be allowed to perform in their own country. The financial advantages were such that in June the Cuban League complied, which led in 1948 to the formation of a rival, outlaw league in the old La Tropical Stadium with the banned players. The sad result was that the season-ending contest at Gran Stadium (won by Lanier and Almendares) turned out to be the last monumental game ever played in the Cuban League.

The soon-to-be Dodgers of black descent did not stay at the Nacional, but at the Hotel Boston in old Havana while their minor-league teammates stayed in the dormitories of the Havana Military Academy, a prep-school. Since major hotels in Havana did not accommodate blacks, the Boston was the place where American blacks had been staying for decades when they performed in the Cuban winter league. This was no Hotel Nacional. To Robinson, Roy Campanella (who had played in Cuba), and Don Newcombe (who would), this was aggravation as well as insult. Robinson was irate when he discovered that the segregation was due not just to Cuban customs but to arrangements made by the Dodgers. Rickey wanted no chance of racial incident in the Dodger or Royal camp. However, the Boston did provide a haven from an atmosphere at the Nacional that would have been tense if not hostile. Its environs were friendly, familiar and had over the years built a kind of support system for these players. The Dodgers were making use of a baseball infrastructure in Cuban society that had been building for nearly 100 years.

But the Dodgers were not in Havana just to break in Robinson and throw their weight around Latin American baseball. They were there to shape their team up to win the pennant that had eluded them the year before. The 1947 Dodgers were a textbook case of a strong team becoming stronger by development from within. They did indeed become National League champions in 1947 with the addition of Robinson to an already strong team. But they also had the kernel of the squad that would become, in baseball's illustrious '50s, the second-best team in baseball (and the best in 1955). The key veterans were back. Reese was at short and Stanky at second, with Edwards behind the plate. Hermanski was in the outfield with popular Walker and perennial promise Pete Reiser, whose continued penchant for injury had him nursing a sore collar bone and ankle sprain throughout spring training, provoking considerable concern among the Flatbush Faithful back home. Spider Jorgensen, a rookie, made the grade at third base, with Robinson, who would be NL Rookie of the Year, taking over at first in one of the few moves Durocher had to make. Experienced infielder Lavaggeto provided backup and veteran batsman Vaughan rejoined the club after a three-year hiatus from baseball. Lost perhaps in the fine print of spring training rosters were names that would bring glory to Brooklyn. There was a strapping young catcher named Hodges, a rifle-armed, hard-hitting outfielder named Furillo, and an elegant left-handed hitter who would be known as the Duke. Meanwhile Campanella and Newcombe headed for the minors; both would be back soon.

The Dodgers' pitching had been strong in '46 and Durocher needed a repeat performance in the coming season. The staff's most pleasant surprise was Ralph Branca, who went on to win 21 games at age 21. Joe Hatten posted another fine season, and a young lefty named Vic Lombardi took up the slack of the fading Kirby Higbe. As with the regulars, this was a solid veteran staff with some promising youngsters beginning to make the grade. Had this Dodger team not been so good, it might not have survived the kind of spring it endured in Havana.

While the players worked to prepare for the season, a feud between Rickey and Larry McPhail of the Yankees led to a series of charges and countercharges regarding the presence of gamblers at Gran Stadium, either hobnobbing with Durocher or sitting in the Yankees' box. Controversy continued as Durocher, deciding that Stanky could not be moved from second, had Robinson play first base with the Royals in preparation for his move into the Dodger lineup. In mid-March, Durocher left his team for California, apparently to deal with the legality of his marriage, and returned to Havana with his glamorous wife. Mixed between road trips to Caracas, to play the Yankees, and to Panama and the Canal Zone, the Dodgers hosted the Braves, the Yanks, Cuban all-stars and the Royals in Havana. All the while Durocher responded to the endless barrage of questions about with whom he had associated, his accusations against McPhail and whether Robinson would make the Dodgers roster.

When the Dodgers broke camp in Havana in the first week of April and headed north, they had no idea that Durocher would not be their manager that season. While in Cuba, Leo had been on best behavior and even banned all card playing among his players for the season. But to no avail. Just before the season began, responding to pressures from various sources including McPhail and hoping to establish himself as a strong commissioner, Chandler suspended Durocher for conduct detrimental to baseball. Demure Burt Shotton took over the team Leo had molded and led it to the NL pennant. The World Series against the Yankees was made memorable by Bill Bevens' near no-hitter broken up by Lavagetto and by Al Gionfriddo's circus catch on a near home run by Joe DiMaggio.

The 1947 spring training had been a success in one important way: the Dodgers ended up National League champs. But the Dodgers did not return to Havana in 1948, going instead to the Dominican Republic. One obvious reason is that it was cheaper. Santo Domingo was no Havana. Brooklyn's spring training costs in '47 had been the highest in the majors. Another reason is that the Cuban fans failed to materialize for the exhibition games. Attendance had been so poor in Havana that the Boston Braves lost money on their three-game, weekend series against the Dodgers and the St. Louis Browns canceled their scheduled trip fearing a similar fate. (The Yankees were in the black from their visit to Havana, but only due to a guarantee from the Cuban promoter). No doubt fans in Havana were saturated with their own baseball which for Cubans has always been more important than the major-league brand. There was, moreover, the labor dispute concerning the agreement between the Cuban League and organized baseball, which had led to the organization of the alternative outlaw winter league. More importantly, perhaps, the Pasquels had been defeated, largely due to overextension, and no longer presented a threat. By 1949 the Dodgers were at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Florida, in what became baseball's first spring training complex, complete with facilities for a club and its farm system.

The Dodgers did return to Cuba once, in March of 1959, after revolutionary forces toppled Batista in January. Heavy rains in Florida prompted the Dodgers to come to Havana with the Cincinnati Reds for an unscheduled weekend series. I found out by word of mouth and rushed to Gran Stadium to witness my first major-league game. Dick Gray, a reserve Dodger infielder, hit a foul ball that I caught in the stands amidst a crowd of barbudos, (bearded) rebels from the hills of Sierra Maestra. The next day one rebel was kind enough to go through the dugouts and have it signed for me by both teams. It still sits on one of my shelves, and though the signatures have faded, I can still make out Sandy Koufax, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Don Drysdale, and dream.

Roberto González Echevarría, born in Sagua La Grande, Cuba, is Sterling Professor of Hispanic and Comparative Literatures at Yale University. He is currently writing "Cuban Baseball: A Cultural History," for Oxford University Press. He is also a first baseman and catcher for the Madison Ravens of the Connecticut Senior Baseball League.

©1998 Spring Training Inc.
This article first appeared in the 1996 issue of Spring Training.

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